Christmas Eve marks return of St. John’s bell in New Milford
NEW MILFORD — The ringing of a bell echoed through the St. John’s Episcopal Church sanctuary and throughout the green last Thursday, a preview of what parishioners heard for the first time in decades just days later on Christmas Eve.
“I haven’t heard that sound in years,” Rev. Jack Gilpin, the church’s rector, said with a grin. “That’s great.”
Gilpin said he was working with the First Congregational Church next door on the green so that the bells would complement each other when they ring. St. John’s bell was also expected to be a call to worship for its services.
Restoring the bell has been a year in the making though Gilpin said it’s something he’s wanted to do since he came to the church six years ago.
“There’s something about church bells that brings a sense of cohesiveness and calm in a town,” he said. “Music does something to people and bells are a type of music.”
Last year, the children of Andrew and Julia Tedtsen, decided to donate to the church in honor of their parents and selected the bells for their gift. Their aunt is still a parishioner at St. John’s.
Herb St. Jean, the church’s junior warden, took on the work of restoring the bells by contacting the companies to do the work and cleaning the bell tower, which had been overrun by critters as it sat unused by the congregation for 30 years or so.
Pigeons had made it their home for decades, leaving behind about 4 inches of droppings on the floor. While cleaning that and replacing the floor, two turkey vulture eggs were found. The congregation held a naming contest for the birds and waited until Ding and Dong, the winning names, were old enough to fly out of the tower. The screens have also been replaced to prevent more birds from getting in.
The bell was able to remain in the bell tower during the restoration, with the replacement pieces brought up to it. Removing the bell for the work would have been tricky because it weighs 2,500 pounds and stands about 5 feet tall. The route to the bell can also be precarious as the only way to it is about 20 feet up a ladder into the ceiling by the church’s main entrance and then up a few other ladders and stairs, St. Jean said.
“It was a very time consuming process,” St. Jean said.
While it’s the original bell heard from St. John’s, the method to produce the sound is different from when it was first installed in 1903.
The bell is no longer rung like the image that often comes to mind of Quasimodo pulling on the rope. Instead, the clapper was removed and two hammers are placed on either side of the bell that are electronically controlled to hit the bell to simulate the sound of it swinging.
“Each bell has a sweet spot that you want to hit to get the optimal sound,” St. Jean said.
Eventually the ringing will be programed to happen at specific times, but until then it is triggered with a small control, similar to a key fob.
This type of technology is becoming more common in churches, with congregations going with this method or changing to a completely electronic bell, like the congregational church.
For many in the congregation, Christmas Eve was the first time they’ve heard the bell.
“I’m just so happy the bells are back,” Gilpin said. “The whole community will benefit from it.”